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Alumni and community encourage Berea College to improve sexual assault policy

This petition had 299 supporters

April 8, 2011

Dear Friends,

          Thank you so much for your support, enthusiasm, and time.  Your quick action and immediate response to Berea’s statements is helping bolster the efforts of current students to create a climate on campus in which rape and sexual assault can be openly discussed.   Wednesday morning the Berea College campus-community received this email:


April 6, 2011

Dear Bereans: 

There is an important matter of considerable concern to our community that I want to share with you.  Berea College has been sued by a recent graduate in relation to a claim arising from an assault by a former professor. In the suit, Ms. Tiffany Pratt alleges the College was negligent in hiring Professor Demetrius Semien in 2008 and is responsible for damages claimed by Ms. Pratt arising from an incident which occurred while she was visiting Professor Semien’s home during the spring of 2010. 

The law firm chosen by the College’s insurance company to defend this lawsuit recently filed a legal document known as an “Answer” responding to the “Complaint” filed by Ms. Pratt’s attorney.  This Answer sought to preserve several different defenses including a possible defense that Ms. Pratt’s “conduct was the substantial factor in causing and bringing about the injuries and damages of which she complains . . .”  This has been the subject of a local newspaper article, numerous blogs and emails from concerned members of our community.

The College had not authorized the inclusion of this “provocation and conduct” defense and was not aware of the content of the Answer until after it was filed.  While the inclusion of any and all potential claims and defenses may be typical practice by lawyers in their court pleadings, it is neither the policy nor intention of Berea College to blame alleged victims of abuse or assault under any circumstances.  Our outside lawyers are new to the College and not familiar with Berea’s policy and stance on victim’s rights.   I have asked them to delete this particular defense and this has been done.

While the College intends to vigorously defend the actions of its faculty and staff in the hiring of Professor Semien, it has previously condemned the assault and expressed concern for Ms. Pratt.  When the incident was reported, College administrators, faculty and staff reacted appropriately to address the situation and investigate the matter.  Professor Semien chose to resign and later plead guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge.  Since Ms. Pratt’s lawsuit is still pending against the College, we cannot discuss the case further.

Over the past several years, the College has placed special emphasis on response to and training on sexual harassment and sexual assault.  New student orientation now covers this topic, and new policies and procedures have been adopted to encourage reporting.  Training is provided to all College faculty and staff, and new procedures have been adopted for judicial hearings, including special provisions for hearing sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints. 

Berea continues to be very concerned about the safety and welfare of its students, faculty and staff.  Mutual respect and concern for others is at the center of our learning community and the College remains committed to these principles.



Larry D. Shinn, President

Berea College


         This is a first step in the right direction. Unfortunately, this is still not a public apology.  It does mean that the defense strategy that blamed Ms. Pratt for the assault has been negated and will not be used in court.  Which is ultimately is very important and significant.

         Most importantly, this letter also does not speak to the current sexual assault policy that failed to meet Ms. Pratt's needs. This response, while a start, is insufficient.  President Shinn's faith in the current process that handles sexual assault cases is disconcerting, especially in light of Ms. Pratt's experience. According to an article that predates the one attached to the petition( ) following her assault the student went to three separate faculty/staff members who were unable to offer her resolution.  Instead she had to consult the police independently, something that should have been encouraged by every staff member she spoke with.  Let's work together to demand that Berea revise it's sexual assault policy now. 


        A Berea Alum wrote this in response to the President's letter: 

   "I spread Berea College's name across the world. I explain the College's unique mission to everyone who shows interest in the institution. My hope is that an unorthodox institution would take an unorthodox position in a sensitive case, such as this one. Unfortunately, their first defense was a grossly insufficient and utterly detestable statement ... A public apology to the greater public, outside of the immediate Berea College Network is overdue. I am appalled by Berea's half-hearted stance in regard to sexual assault. Future funding and more importantly, the Institution's reputation is, indeed, jeopardized by the seemingly feigned interest Berea has vocalized thus far."


         President Shinn's letter is not a public apology, it is not an acknowledgment of the inadequacies of the current sexual assault policy, and it is not a commitment to making the Berea College Campus safer for everyone. Recently, a past student government leader contacted us to inform us that the student government worked to draft a new sexual assault policy last school year that may address some alumni concerns.  Currently, we're working to obtain a copy of the sexual assault policy and inquiring with campus official as to when it will be posted as a resource for students.


        There are some things you can do to help in addition to signing the petition and sharing the petition with your friends:


1.) If you have ever helped to create sexual assault policy on the Berea College campus please email us at: 


2.) If you have personal experience with the Berea College sexual assault policy or have been sexually assaulted or domestically abused on the Berea College campus and do not mind sharing your story (you can remain anonymous).  please contact us at: 


3.) If you are still a student at Berea College and you're currently working on addressing the issue of rape and sexual assault on campus please let us know how we can support you: 


4.) If you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions for how we should proceed, please contact us: 


Be well! 


Richmond Register article the prompted the petition:


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